Saturday, 1 April 2017

Finding the Flow State

There is an ongoing joke in our house about what my husband calls “stable time.”  There is the time I tell him that I will be coming in from the stable, and then there is the time I actually get to the house, which is usually more than a little bit later than I predicted.  I am a chronically punctual person, so why does this happen?  I think it has to do with a phenomenon called the “flow state.”

Often when I ride or groom the horses, I become completely unaware of the passage of time.  I get lost in the wonderful moments of togetherness, or the delight in learning something new together.  Most riders have experienced those rides when it feels like everything is coming together to create a beautiful experience.  You and your horse are communicating so well that it seems as though you are moving as one, his gaits flow freely, and you move harmoniously with his movement.  The rhythm feels wonderful, your breathing is calm and you understand what it is to truly work in partnership with an equine partner.  And then you realize that the five minutes you thought just passed by were actually 35 minutes. Wow.  What happened there?

This experience is what Dr.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state.”  During the flow state you become so involved in an activity that “nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that you will do it even at great cost for the sheer sake of doing it.”*  Flow is certainly not unique to horse people. Writers, scientists, athletes – people from all walks of life have experienced this phenomenon that some people refer to as “the zone.”  Flow happens when you are using your skills to engage in a task that is challenging , but not so challenging that it is frustrating.  To enter the flow state, you need:
  • Skills to undertake the task.  The task should challenge you just enough so that your skills may develop further by engaging in the task.
  • A clearly defined, realistic goal of something you are trying to achieve.
  • ·Focus on the goal without distractions.  You will not likely enter the flow state if you stop your ride to chat to a spectator, take a phone call or take a selfie of you and your horse.
  •       IImmediate feedback that requires responses – in riding this feedback comes from the horse.
  •  Awareness of your emotions.  You cannot achieve flow if you are experiencing negative emotions that diminish your focus.
Aside from the satisfaction and feelings of pleasure we get from entering the flow state, it can also lead to improved performance as we stretch ourselves gently to refine our skills to meet the challenge before us.  I believe that the many times my riding students have had “aha!” moments have happened when they were in a flow state.

Take away message for equestrian educators
You can support your students in their quest to find a flow state by helping them set realistic short terms goals that help them on their journey to their long term goals.  Short term goals should enable the student to use the skills they have TODAY (not the ones they wish they had today).  Short term goals should offer a slight challenge to the student’s skills without causing frustration.  It is surprising how many people are not good at setting incremental, realistic goals.

For example, in a quest to ride a proper shoulder in, a student may set themselves a goal of riding five steps of correct shoulder in.  However, for someone just learning this skill, a more incremental and realistic goal might be to learn to feel with the seat every time the inside hind leg leaves the ground.  

Until they can achieve this incremental goal, they will not achieve five steps of correct shoulder in and therefore will be frustrated.  More on goal setting in future blog posts, but for the purpose of helping riders achieve the flow state, equestrian educators have a role to play in helping students set goals pitched perfectly at providing some challenge to the rider’s current skill level without over challenging them.

*Reference: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in Paine-Clemens, Bunny. (2015). Creative Synergy: Using At, Science and Philosophy to Self-Actualize Your Life,” 4th Dimension Press: VA.

Are You Really Listening? 

In the world of workplace team development, a common concept to explore with teams is active listening.  Much attention has been paid in the business world to what is defined by Whitworth and colleagues as the Three Levels of Active Listening.

The Three Levels of Active Listening explain how much attention we pay to another person and how we use the data from the conversation.  The three levels are:
  • ·         Level I – Internal Listening. We hear the words of the other person, but the focus is on what it means to us.  At this level we listen to meet our own needs for information.  We focus on our own thoughts and opinions and don’t really listen to the other person’s needs.  The focus is on our own thoughts about the conversation, such as what thoughts or feelings am I having as the other person talks? What opinions do I have about what I am listening to?  What would I like to say next?
  • ·         Level II – Focused Listening. The attention is focused on the other person.  The intent of listening at this level is to develop a better understanding of the person.  The focus is completely on what the other person is saying and what it means. We seek deeper understanding by asking questions that clarify what the other person means and don’t focus on how we feel or what we want to say next.
  • ·         Level III – Global Listening. You listen not only for words but observe whatever other information you can take in about the person and the environment around you both, such as their emotions, energy, and body language.  As Michael Warden says: “Level 3 is where intuition and insight often live. It’s where new awareness often first shows up, and the possibility for profound change.  If you think about it, it makes sense that Level 3 is often the most powerful kind of listening a leader can employ because the transformational potential of any conversation is typically not just about what’s happening in me or what’s happening in you; rather, it’s about what’s happening in us.”**

It strikes me that these three levels of active listening are very relevant to horse and rider teams.  If you are listening at level 1, as you ride your mind is filled with thoughts like: I wonder if I am straight in the saddle? I think we are doing this right.  Next I want to work on this movement.   
If you are listening at level 2, you will listen to the movement of the horse beneath you.  You will read your horse’s body language such as the position of his ears, the tossing of his head or how much tension he is carrying in his neck.  You will focus on what he is trying to tell you.

But level 2 is not enough to truly ride in partnership.  It’s not enough to listen to your horse to understand that he is holding tension somewhere.  Because the cause of the tension might be you and a particular way you are using your body.  As riders we need to listen at level three and understand how the bodies of horse and rider are moving together and how each body impacts the movement of the other, how the energy is shared between two beings, how the connection between horse and rider changes within the ride, how the external environment impacts your ability to communicate.

The next time you ride, notice how you listen.  And then actively practice the different levels to see how it changes your ride.  Practice level 2 by focusing on your horse and his body language and movement.  For example, in the trot, how rhythmic are his steps, does his back feel free, is he reaching softy into the bridle to take contact with your hand, are his ears relaxed?  And then practice level 3 by expanding your awareness of how you are moving together and how your movement can influence each other.  

For example, consider the sitting trot.  Level 3 listening might go something like this: as his back swings my seat bones are being moved by the motion of his back.  Freeing the movement of my hip joints further enables him to free his back more and together we get a softer, more engaged trot. I feel the power coming from his hind end and he feels my receiving, consistent hand that he finds pleasing enough to drop his head take gentle contact with my hand.  Together we are enjoying moving together and neither of us is blocking the other’s movement.
Learning to actively listen at level 3 when you ride will take your riding to a whole new level.

*Laura Whitworth, Henry Kimsey-House, and Phil Sandahl: Co-Active Coaching (Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing, 1998), p.9


April 1 2017